Original Context Matters
11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11 (ESV)
This verse is one of the most often quoted verses of scripture. Some call this their life verse or a verse given during times of waiting to bring hope during trials. Have you ever checked the background of this verse? Was this verse written to individuals as a source of encouragement?
Recently, articles have appeared that have criticized the way Jeremiah 29:11 has been taken out of context. Context, as defined in Webster’s dictionary, is the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning. If, we look at the original use of this verse, we discover, it was spoken to the Jewish people at the time of Exile. They have been removed from the Promised Land by their captors, the Babylonians. It is soon after they were enslaved and dispersed into a pagan culture by King Nebuchadnezzar (587 BCE).
Judgement from God has caught up with his people. God punished Israel due to their disobedience. The prophet Jeremiah must confront a false teacher, Hananiah, who has boldly proclaimed that God was going to free Israel from this exile in two years (Jeremiah 28:1-4). As we look back on history, we see that just did not happen. Who is Jeremiah? He is a poorly-received prophet from a village northeast of Jerusalem. What message does he send to these exiles?
He tells the people to settle down, build houses and plant gardens (29:5), take wives and have children (29:6), and seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf (29:7). Do not be deceived or listen to the dreamers, the prophets and diviners (Jer. 29:8), they are telling lies. All this is good and true, yet many often place hope in Jer. 29:11 that God will hear our prayers and be the game changer of our circumstances. Instead, maybe we should consider that God is for us, yet he wants us to focus on him and not what he can do for us.
Jeremiah tells the people this judgement will last for seventy years (29:10), yet after that period I will bring you back to Israel. However, this meant that most of the exiles would never return to the Promised Land. They better get used to living faithfully in a foreign culture. Ah, can we also learn to adapt our circumstances to the truth revealed in the context of this scripture?
As John Calvin said about this passage, the prophet is speaking not just of historical redemption, for that period, but also a future redemption. For the Israelites, God listened to their prayers as they sought him with all their hearts (Jer. 29:12-13). God brought them out of exile after a long period of time. Can we see this promise revealed today? Rather than looking at this verse in isolation let the context speak. We are in exile in this world, and yet, God hears our prayers. We are to witness the faith that we have been given to a culture that is in need of redemption.
Rather than isolating in our comfortable church communities, we must seek the welfare of the city and nation that we find ourselves living in. What can we do to share the love of Christ our Lord within the context of community? After 70 years in exile, many of the Israelites had become settled in Babylon that when the opportunity presented itself to return home, they opted out and remained in the land. May we not grow so comfortable in this world that we miss out on eternity to be at home with Christ.
Prayer: Lord, help me to know the truth of scripture and be willing to walk through the trials of life with an openness to obey even if the circumstances never change, in Jesus’ Name. Amen.
James Conley, Pastor
First Baptist Church